It’s My Symbol and I’ll Cry If I Want To

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

It’s My Symbol and I’ll Cry If I Want To

SO FAR WE’VE BEEN TALKING about figures that are fairly common and well-known. A lot of things in the world have more or less ready-made associations—or associations so long in use that they seem ready-made to us latecomers. Rivers? Change, flow, flood, or drought. Rocks? Stasis, resistance to change, permanence. When Yeats puts an imagined stone in his hypothetical river in “Easter 1916,” he contrasts the flux of the river with the unyielding stone, and we all get it without having to think very deeply. So far, so good.

Now, what if it’s not something seen around the house of literature every day? What if it’s, oh, I don’t know, a cow? Or a goat? Lots of sheep in pastoral poems, not so many goats. Let’s go off the deep end here; how about a flea? You think I’m kidding, right? John Donne went there long ago, getting a lot of mileage out of the tiny pest. I mentioned earlier that Donne was a lawyer and clergyman by trade—he was dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for the last decade of his life—but earlier he was a rake as well as a writer fond of sexy metaphors. It was the task of every literary rake to talk his romantic targets into giving him what he wanted in the cleverest fashion possible. Here’s one of Donne’s efforts:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;

Yet this enjoys before it woo,

And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;

And this, alas! is more than we would do.

This is just the first stanza of “The Flea,” but, allowing for a thee and thou, we can make sense of it. The male speaker is asking his reluctant lover to consider that the flea has done what she won’t let him do: it has mingled their two beings, in this case by taking blood from each of them. See, he says, our blood is already joined, so what’s the big deal about having a roll in the hay? There’s no shame in the flea, or in our having been bitten by it; why should there be shame in our having sex?

He goes on in this vein in the next two stanzas, first asking her not to kill the flea, since that would amount to killing, in a funny bit of illogic, all three of them, and speaking of the insect as “our marriage bed.” We understand throughout that he is not entirely sincere, that the flea is an occasion for comic posing as well as sexual begging. In stanza three, she does kill the flea—not a happy sign for the imploring lover—and he suggests that there will be no more dishonor in her consenting to sex than there is in her having killed the flea. This kind of extended metaphor running through the poem as an organizing device is called a conceit, something at which Donne and his so-called metaphysical poet colleagues excelled. Often, as here, the device seems more important than the subject, the latter seeming to have been dreamt up in order to employ the former. The occasion, a lover’s urgent request, may be amusing, but not nearly so much as using an annoying flea as the basis for such an argument.

So here’s the payoff: how many times have you seen a strategy like this? Not the sexual request, the use of a flea (or, alternatively, a mosquito, tick, horsefly, or any other biting insect). Pretty much never, right? One of the things we’ve been talking about in this book is how we can build a sort of literary database of imagery and its uses: rain, check; shared meals, check; quests, check; and so on. What that database relies upon, naturally, is repetition. If enough writers use a given object or situation in enough works, we start to recognize and understand the range of possible meanings. They don’t have to say, “Hey, pay attention! It’s raining!” They can simply make it rain and we’ll do the rest. The writers don’t even have to think about it; it can rain because that’s what the plot demands. We can figure things out from there.

The point is, we have, as writers, artists, and readers, a common pool of figurative data built up over centuries of use in a host of situations and for a multiplicity of purposes—a store of images, symbols, similes, and metaphors that we not only can access but do, almost automatically. We may not think our way through the implications of a flood in a movie, but we can feel its impact—apart from the surface fact of things getting washed away—at a level before conscious thought. This warehouse of implications, as it were, permits texts to mean more than one thing simultaneously.

Let’s be clear, just so no one runs off the rails: these implications are invariably secondary. The primary meaning of the text is the story it is telling, the surface discussion (landscape description, action, argument, and so on). There comes a point in our literary development when we nearly all lose sight of that fact. If you want to trip up an advanced English class, ask them, “What’s this story about?” They fall all over themselves coming up with “hidden” meanings, many of which may actually be correct. They just forget to say that it’s about a bigot whose wife invites a blind man to dinner. Any fourth grader can do it, but eventually we lose the skill as we pursue what lies beneath, so it’s worth exercising that muscle every so often. Think of it this way: if the novel is a complete disaster as a piece of storytelling, it can’t be saved by all the symbols in the world. No, I did not just condemn Moby-Dick; it succeeds by rules of narrative that not many people can grasp (especially at seventeen or twenty, when most of us get fouled in its lines).

None of this diminishes the importance of those secondary meanings; they still matter. They are what provide texture and depth to a work; without them, the literary world would be a little flat. They instill resonance as we recognize something in a new work that we might have seen elsewhere or that deepens the meaning of the surface story. It’s one thing, say, for a young woman to feel passionately toward her rescuer, quite another if the rescue was from drowning (as opposed to from a runaway carriage or a pack of wolves), since in almost drowning she has experienced something quite close to death. She has been, in a sense, reborn. That shared storehouse of figuration—that is, types of figurative representation such as symbols, metaphors, allegory, imagery—allows us, even encourages us, to discover possibilities in a text beyond the literal. We have spent a great deal of time discussing various items stored in that vault, from gardens to baptisms to journeys to weather and seasons to food to illness, but its contents are vastly greater than any book can possibly cover. Happily, once you understand the principle, you can uncover and grapple with individual instances as you go. After all, you’ve been doing it all your life without knowing, so the only difference is that you’re moving ahead thoughtfully.

On the other hand, what about those figurative elements that are not part of the common share? I suggested that Donne’s tiny bloodsucker was a private symbol. Here’s another one from the same guy. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” he is bidding farewell to his beloved. In attempting to soften the blow he says, in effect, “Just think of it like this: you are the foot of a compass [think geometry, not geography], while I am the pencil point. No matter how far I must range out, we are always connected, so I cannot break free of you. You are the center of my existence even when we are far apart.” Actually, he provides twin compasses, with each of the lovers being the center of the other’s existence. I’m not sure that allows for a lot of movement, but we’ll pass on that for now; after all, it’s a great image. It’s a lot of fun to debate in class whether he is sincere or just using a line to make a quick morning-after getaway (evidence in the poem runs in both directions), but for right now, that’s beside the point. For our purposes, there’s a problem: no map exists for this new territory. There just aren’t a lot of poems that make use of mathematical devices. Oh, three hundred or so years later Louis MacNeice will refer to “slide snide rules” in his “Variation on Heraclitus,” leaving the hapless instructor to explain to mystified students that in the old days (i.e., before calculators) the slide rule was something we used for math and physics calculations. There may also be a poem or two out there somewhere that allude to the abacus, although I’ve not seen them. But you just won’t find a lot of references to protractors and compasses. So what to do with such a reference?

Figure it out.

I know, I know. That sounds really lame, but sometimes the truth does hobble. In a situation where we encounter purely private symbols, there are some things we can fall back on. Most important, there’s context. Where in the poem does the image reside? (In this case, the final three stanzas, after he has discussed disappearances of a more permanent sort.) How does he use the image? What does he seem to mean by it? In other words, what are the words, read carefully, telling us? We also have another set of tools available: our own good sense and reading savvy. As we become expert readers through practice, we gain the ability to transfer knowledge from one area to another. True, before this poem we have no practice with compass imagery, but we do have experience with figures of distance and connectedness. We know how other forms of staying in touch work, from letters to telephone calls to messages by courier (although those often go badly). We understand lovers’ oaths and all that goes with them. What we learn pretty quickly is that this is not the hardest image we’ll ever have to deal with. We can do this.

Of course, some writers make it hard. I mentioned Yeats and a fairly public symbol earlier, but he is notorious for his capacity to employ very private images and symbols. One of his favorites involves a tower. And not just any tower, not the ivory tower of popular cliché, but a very specific example. His tower. Around 1915 or 1916 he bought a fifteenth- or sixteenth-century (dates on these matters are a little fuzzy) Anglo-Norman tower, a sort of bastion-minus-its-castle, although it was called Ballylee Castle. Using the Gaelic word for tower, he rechristened it Thoor Ballylee, a curious affectation given the poet’s signature inability to master the old language. But then, Yeats was a funny guy. Once he acquires the tower from his great friend Lady Gregory, it quickly dominates his poetry. Sometimes it merely stands for being rooted in the soil of Co. Galway, which was a great desire of his. At others, it can be an emblem of imperfect art, as when he goes up to the roof and leans on a broken stone crenel. Frequently, it is most significantly itself, the place from which he can, in relative safety, watch the competing military forces move up and down the road during the Irish Civil War (“Meditations in Time of Civil War”). Or it is the building on which he intends to have a dedicatory poem inscribed (“To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee”). It is a retreat from the modern world, a refuge, a connection to an aristocratic past, an object of great solidity. It becomes the title of successive books, such as The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1933), after its most notable interior feature. And then there are the gyres.

What do you mean—what are gyres?

Okay, so here’s where private systems of symbols really kick in. Yeats has an entire visionary system that he articulates in A Vision (1925). This system has lots of moving parts, but key among them are the gyres—which he always pronounced with a hard g. His gyres are spinning conical things with the point of one resting (if spinning things rest) in the base of the other. Clear as mud, right? Imagine an hourglass. Now, split it at the narrowest point. If you can somehow cause those two halves to intersect with each other (easier with nonsolid objects) and cause them to spin in opposite directions, you’ve got it. The gyres embody opposing historical or philosophical or spiritual forces, so they’re a little like Hegel’s or Marx’s dialectic, in which opposing forces clash together to create a new reality. Except that dialectics don’t spin or whirl.

There is no end to the fun Yeats has with gyres, and once they pop up in his thinking—shortly after his marriage in 1917—they are everywhere, from the wheeling flights of birds taking off from water to whirlwinds to anything vaguely circular. But one of his favorites involves that winding stair inside a tower, something at once exotic and homey that he would have encountered every day in his summer residence. Like gyres, the tower and spiral stairway are inseparable; one is not much use without the other. One of the great beauties—and challenges—of reading Yeats is that you find symbols and metaphors that you will find nowhere else in all of literature. His system of figuration is private, idiosyncratic, even, as some claim, hermetic, sealed off, airless. You’ll never get some parts of him on a first reading; it may require special information (I have studied A Vision, but that’s a lot to ask of civilians). So it takes some work to get everything you want from some of his poetry.

And here’s the thing: there’s no road map. You can work with stock symbolism till the cows are back in the barn, and it won’t help. These symbols are private. That doesn’t mean no visitors allowed. I don’t claim to offer a comprehensive examination of figuration in literature, but even if I did manage such a thing, in this instance you would still be on your own. If, instead of twenty-some chapters, this book had a hundred twenty-some, or two hundred twenty-some, it still wouldn’t have a chapter on gyres. In order to warrant such a chapter, we would need at least two poets dealing in them. To date, there is only one. I suspect that statement will always be true. Singular systems don’t get general discussions.

That, however, doesn’t mean we can’t decode his writing. We may not get it all, but we can do a good bit. When Yeats, for instance, in “The Wild Swans at Coole” has his swans go wheeling up in “great broken rings,” we have no trouble with the image itself, that of a great flock of huge, white birds rising in loose circles into the air. Does it matter if readers don’t get the larger symbolic implications? Not really. There are layers and layers of possible meanings here, and we take what we can find, what we are prepared to deal with at the moment of our reading. Besides, in this case, the contrast between the aging, earthbound speaker and the always young, airborne birds is worth all the gyres that ever were. Or weren’t.

So here’s a strategy: use what you know. I have spent many years teaching twentieth-century writing—Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Eliot, Pound, Fowles, O’Brien (several of those), all the heavy hitters of innovative writing. You know, the scary ones. And without exception, those writers produce books that we must learn to read as we go. Ulysses isn’t like, well, anything. It isn’t Dubliners or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s two earlier works, nor is it much like works by other so-called stream-of-consciousness writers, whatever affinities it may have with them. The only thing that can really prepare you to read Ulysses is reading Ulysses. As you can tell, I’m a lot of help in class. Still, it’s true; there are some narrative strategies in the novel that readers will never have seen before and, likely, will never see again. Oh, by the way, what you learn there will also not really prepare you for Finnegans Wake. That novelty is part of the excitement as well as the challenge of the book. There’s so much that’s just plain new. I don’t know how you can’t love that, although students routinely remind me that it’s possible. The same can be said for Mrs. Dalloway or The Waste Land or As I Lay Dying or The French Lieutenant’s Woman or even The Great Gatsby, if in slightly less gaudy ways. What I’ve learned from all these modern and postmodern works has led me to conclude that it is true of others as well: every work teaches us how to read it as we go along. The big lessons, for best results, occur early on. Context helps a lot in reading new or unfamiliar forms of literature. Page three helps with page four, which helps with pages eight and fifteen, and so on. Not every book presents the same level of challenge; the lessons in Dickens are somewhat more modest than those in Joyce (and have mainly to do with endurance). Even so, every page of a literary work is part of an education in reading.

The other thing, aside from immediate context, that helps us with the occasional rough patch is everything else we have read. And by “reading” here, I am taking a liberal view. You read novels and poems, of course. But you also “read” a play even if you see it in its proper setting, a theater, and not between the covers of a book. Well, then, do you also “read” a movie? I believe so, although some films may reward reading more than others. Hollywood has always produced a certain number of films that do not repay the application of brainwaves—think gross-out comedies; titles whose last name is a number, as in Rambo 17½; and some adaptations of comic books. But since I have invoked comic books, yes, you read those as well. And in reading all those forms of narrative and presentation, you prepare yourself for new works. In the present instance, in analyzing the more familiar and shared examples of symbolic representation, we gain practice in understanding figuration. From there, we can move forward to encounter new and stranger examples. Most of the time, we do this without thinking about it, but thinking about it might be useful. When I suggest to students that they use their past reading experiences, their response is on the order of, “We don’t have any.” Which, as we have just seen, is untrue. And here’s what I say in reply: You know more than you think you do. No, you have not read everything. But you have probably read enough—enough novels, memoirs, poems, news stories, movies, television shows, plays, songs, enough everything when it’s all added up. The real problem is that “inexperienced” readers tend to deny themselves credit for the experience they do have. Get over it! Focus on all that you do know, not all that you don’t. And use it.

Not every private symbol is entirely idiosyncratic. Sometimes an image or scene is merely turned to innovative uses. Usually, if someone introduces a tightrope or high wire into a work, our attention is turned entirely to matters of balance, to the void beneath the wire. Such a pattern is perfectly logical; the thrill and fascination of the performance lies not merely in the difficulty but also in the possibility of calamity. For persons of a certain age (mine, for instance), the most notable example would be Leon Russell’s song “Tight Rope” (1972), in which the twin perils, the chasms on either side, are described variously as ice and fire, hate and hope, and life and death. But there’s another way of viewing the wire. Especially the highest wire act ever performed. On a bright August morning in 1974, the French aerialist Philippe Petit walked a wire between the then-still-new twin towers of the World Trade Center. This was, of course, twenty-seven years before two jetliners commandeered by terrorists reduced the buildings to rubble, with terrible loss of life. Eight years after that atrocity, Colum McCann published his novel Let the Great World Spin (2009), in which Petit’s feat acts as the framing device that connects stories of diverse New Yorkers on that summer’s day. A few of them have witnessed the walk, while most have only heard about it second- or thirdhand, as indeed most residents of the city would have. But here’s the thing: McCann does not use the wire as a metaphor for hazard and disaster, although that possibility is always present both in Petit’s performance and in the lives—and deaths—of the characters in the framed narrative. Rather, McCann points out the other dimension of a tightrope, not its narrowness but its length. To accomplish his stunt, Petit connects the two towers by means of his cable. The novel follows this metaphor throughout, showing how lives are joined together by the most unlikely and seemingly flimsy of filaments. The brilliance of the novel grows out of its insistence that the real star is not the walker but the wire; everyone, including the narrator, gives full due to the “crazy man,” as most see him, walking between the buildings, but it is the braided cable supporting him that constitutes the real magic. The novel has been described as “kaleidoscopic” and “dazzling,” and properly so. If those adjectives are apt, and I believe they are, the dazzling part is McCann’s finding a conceit, a controlling metaphor, that enables him to string together disparate lives from Bronx hookers to a Manhattan district court judge to art poseurs to a ruined Irish monk to the owner of a Park Avenue penthouse—in other words, to portray a city that is itself dazzlingly kaleidoscopic.

The way McCann deploys his dominant figure is uncommon, possibly unique, yet it is by no means difficult to read or comprehend. The reason that this seeming paradox is true is that for the most part humans are very good at entering these “private” realms, at inferring meanings, at judging the implications of texts—in other words, we’re good at reading. So when Samuel Beckett sticks characters in ash cans or Edward Albee plants them in a sandbox, or when Eugène Ionesco turns them into rhinoceroses, we may scratch our heads at first, given that we’ve never seen that situation, but with a little time and imagination, we’ll figure it out. Even the weird stuff usually makes sense on some level. Maybe especially the weird stuff.